It's hard to say who noticed the Bhutanese immigrants first, but with more than 50 volunteers helping them each week, it really doesn't matter.

A year ago, Stake President John Pingree began noticing Bhutanese refugee immigrants attending church. There were 20 to 30 of them in several chapels in the Salt Lake Valley View Stake each Sunday. "They weren't asking for anything; they aren't even Christian. They just liked being at church," President Pingree said.

Sixteen years ago, these refugees — mostly ethnic Nepalis — were forced out of Bhutan. In the 1800s, many Nepalis moved to Bhutan in search of farmland. Afraid that the large numbers of Nepali people would influence the majority position and Buddhist religion, the Bhutanese government made policies to create uniformity between the two peoples.

However, the Nepalis did not want to give up their native language and customs. They fled back to Nepal, only to find they wouldn't be permitted to work there. Denied entry to Bhutan and unable to live in Nepal, the United States began a program to resettle thousands of the Bhutanese refugees.

The refugees have been arriving in the United States with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

"I just said, I don't know what to do, but we need to do something (for them)," President Pingree said.

Not far away, in the South Jordan Utah Founders Park Stake, Girish Ghimire, a native of Nepal, was thinking the same thing. Ghimire first learned of the gospel from an American friend he studied with in China. Ghimire traveled to Hong Kong to be baptized, since there were no missionaries in China, and then decided to study in Utah, where he completed his MBA at Brigham Young University.

Ghimire talked to Blake Sonne, president of the Utah Salt Lake City Mission about what could be done to help. President Sonne connected Ghimire to President Pingree because of President Pingree's interest in helping the refugees attending church in his stake.

After several meetings with Ghimire and state employees who work with refugees, they created "Bhutanese gatherings" in a way to best accommodate the greatest needs of the people — with English classes and other basic life skills taught each week.

Earlier, Gordon and Lisa Holladay pursued an inner-city mission opportunity, and President Pingree called them to oversee the refugee gatherings.

"The first gathering had only 22 people — but we were excited to have that many. Now we consistently have 130-150 attending each week," Gordon Holladay said.

Volunteers from the stake pick up the refugees each Thursday evening and transport them to and from the chapel.

"Having lived in these camps, some for most of their lives, they don't know how to use a toilet, light switch, refrigerator or thermostat. They can come here to learn these basic skills," Gordon Holladay said.

Presenters with professional training, such as nurses, dental hygienists, lawyers and college representatives from the stake or the Utah State Department Workforce Services Refugee Team, are invited each week to teach important lessons for survival in the U.S. They cover topics like how to get a GED, driver's license, use various cleaning supplies, personal hygiene and basic household utilities.

Ghimire, the only interpreter, relays the information back to the refugees. As the Nepali people still use the caste system, it is fortunate that Ghimire comes from an upper caste. The refugees look to him as a respected teacher and guide.

"This meeting would not be possible without (Ghimire)," Lisa Holladay said. "Actually, these meetings would not be possible without the help of all of our volunteers and donators."

The caste system isn't the only tradition the refugees have brought with them. Men and women segregate as part of their natural customs. A presenter teaching about family life in the U.S suggested that they sit in families — husband and wife together with their children.

"They didn't want to do it, especially the men. They eventually did, but it was hard getting them there," President Pingree said.

It also didn't last. The following meetings the refugees were found comfortably segregated again.

The response from church members in the stake has been overwhelming. Wards started donating things the immigrants cannot obtain with the food stamps.

At least 60 pairs of shoes, various items of clothing, diapers, 200 paper sacks filled with shampoo and other personal care items, along with hygiene kits, buckets full of cleaning supplies and first-aid kits, have been donated by church and community members.

In turn, the immigrants started bringing items to the meetings they have acquired through the week that they may not be able to use — something they had not done before.

"This example of sharing and giving has begun to make its mark on the people," Ghimire said. "They are learning from the example."

Members of the Zion's Peak YSA Ward, Salt Lake Valley View Stake help by playing with the more 50 children who attend the meetings each week so their parents are able to concentrate on the lessons.

"Our stake has grown as we have served here," President Pingree said. "We are more unified and have developed a deeper sense of gratitude. It's helped us to look beyond ourselves and look to our brothers and sisters across the world."

e-mail: hloftus@desnews.com